"A Wide Field for Usefulness": Women's Civil Status on the Montana Frontier, 1864-1914
Montana women obtained some personal and property rights faster than their Eastern and Southern sisters. They gained the right to vote until 1914, well after women in other Western states, but before most of their Eastern peers. The frontier provided an environment conducive to change, and some extraordinary women helped bring it about.
During the territorial period, legislation was passed allowing married women to sue in their own names, devise their own property in their wills and, if living separately from their husbands, hold property rights in their homesteads. If their husbands died intestate, a statute provided for widows to receive all of his property if the couple was childless, half if there was one child, and one third if there were two or more children.
Women who arrived in Montana saw their relocation there as a new beginning. Frontier conditions necessitated more flexibility in social mores than in the East. Many women in Montana and the rest of the West worked hard on their homesteads. Some also served as servants and teachers or worked in other capacities. The disproportionate ratio of men to women made it difficult for women to obtain help for their domestic chores. The frequent absence of husbands, the distances between homes, and the constant domestic labor often left women isolated and undermined the functioning of social institutions. The same forces also gave Montana women a sense of strength and autonomy.
Under the statutes of 1872, married women's separate property was exempt from their husbands' debts and liabilities if women recorded their property with the county register of deeds. This law was upheld in court in Griswold v. Boley (1876). Subsequent decisions strictly construed the legislation, holding that wives could protect their property while moving by registering it in every county through which they passed and that unmarried women could protect their property from their intended husbands' creditors by recording it. The statutory protections, however, were only available if married women provide their property had not been obtained from their husbands. An 1874 statute allowed married women to be treated as civil legal persons and to transact business in their own names as if they were single. Applicants to run a business had to state their intention to run the enterprise in their own name and to accept sole responsibility for the payment of any liabilities incurred. Sole trader laws became more stringent over the next several decades, to prevent husbands from using wives' sole trader status to shield their own property from their creditors.
Women entrepreneurs thrived. Rural entrepreneurs ranched and farmed, while urban ones ran employment agencies, stores, restaurants, boarding houses, and laundries. Prostitutes thrived before railroads reached Montana, but their business declined thereafter. The first women professionals in Montana were teachers, who set up schools during the 1860s. By 1883, anyone, man or woman, could run for county superintendent of schools. Many women ran photography studios, and in the 1890s, women took over the fields of stenography and typing in Montana. By 1900, Helena had four women doctors, 29 nurses, two midwives and one dentist. Women were allowed to join the state bar in 1889. Ella Knowles ran for Attorney General in 1892. She lost, but Henri Haskell, the victor, appointed her Assistant Attorney General.
As early as 1883, women could vote on school issues and questions submitted to the vote of taxpayers. Early efforts to obtain full suffrage, however, were unsuccessful. Not until Jeannette Rankin became active in the Montana suffrage movement, keeping it alive after a failed referendum in 1911, did the quest for suffrage succeed. Women obtained the right to vote in a controversial 1914 vote. In what may have been a reflection of the strong sense of autonomy generated by frontier life, suffrage received strong support from rural areas, but not from urban voters. Two years after the women of Montana obtained suffrage, Rankin ran for Congress and became the first woman in the United States House of Representatives